"Averell took command of these infantry regiments and, in just a few weeks, turned them into effective cavalry," Wittenberg said. "They had to learn to march and fight in formation. It's supposed to take months to train cavalry. Averell did it in just a few short weeks before he was ordered to Lewisburg."
In August 1863, Averell's force of 1,300 cavalry, infantry and artillery units was ordered to seize the law library at Lewisburg and destroy a section of the Virginia-Tennessee Central Railroad in nearby Virginia.
After passing through Huntersville in Pocahontas County, the Union force made its way to the eastern edge of White Sulphur Springs on Aug. 26 via a narrow, boulder-rimmed canyon known as Rocky Gap. There, they encountered a force of 2,000 Confederates under the command of Col. George Patton, a Charleston lawyer and the grandfather of the famed World War II general of the same name.
The larger Confederate forces repelled several attempts by Averell's men to break through their lines and move on toward their objective in Lewisburg. Fighting, including several cavalry charges and artillery duels, continued throughout the afternoon and into the next morning. Averell, concerned that the ammunition supply of his greatly outnumbered force was nearly depleted, broke off the attack and organized a retreat.
"It was a toe-to-toe slugging match for a day and a half, with heavy casualties on both sides," Wittenberg said. "It was a neighbor-versus-neighbor type of fight, with most of the soldiers coming from West Virginia. Most of the Confederate force came from the Charleston area."
While Wittenberg believes Averell made the correct decision to withdraw, "it was a Confederate victory, both tactically and strategically."
Union losses were 26 killed, 125 wounded and 67 captured. The Confederates lost 20 killed, 129 wounded and 18 missing.
Among the Union dead was Averell's aide-de-camp, Capt. Paul von Koenig, a German baron who came to the United States with his brother at the start of the war, initially serving with a New York infantry regiment.
"He died leading a cavalry charge," Wittenberg said. "Trying to figure out his life story, and how he came to be in this battle, has been a fascinating part of researching this book."
Later in 1863, troops under Averell's command were victorious in the Battle of Droop Mountain. But in 1864, during the Valley Campaign in Virginia, Averell was again relieved of his command, after failing to meet the expectations of Gen. Phil Sheridan.
"But don't feel too sorry for him," Wittenberg said. "After the war, he patented an asphalt paving process that made him very wealthy."
Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelham...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.